Although collaborators like writer Arthur C Clarke and effects gurus Wally Veevers and Douglas Trumbull were important to the success of 2001, the film is basically a triumph for its producer-director, Stanley Kubrick. No cinema epic had been so completely the vision of one man.
Kubrick persuaded MGM to back his plan to make the most realistic space adventure ever conceived to the tune of $6 million, then an astronomical budget for a movie (it actually ended up costing over $10 million).
It would be one of the most expensive films ever made, and Kubrick was also clear that he planned to be in production for over two years, an almost unheard-of amount of time.
What is most remarkable about the film is that it has no stars (no pun intended) and very little plot. The relative absence of dialogue allowed audiences to fully immerse themselves in the film as a visual and musical experience.
At the time 2001 was released, of course, audiences were far less familiar with the hardware and spectacle of space travel than we are today (Neil Armstrong walked on the moon a year after 2001 came out).
Every detail was carefully researched and depicted, and some of the process work, such as the docking of the Pan Am clipper into the satellite hangar, was breathtaking and faultless in its execution.
The spaceship’s interior was made weightless because Kubrick had it shot within a centrifuge, built especially for the film at the cost of $750,000 by aircraft engineering firm Vickers-Armstrong. Weighing 30 tons, the revolving set was 40 feet in diameter and 20 feet wide – it was Kubrick’s pride and joy.
Initial screenings did not fare well. Predictably, a 160-minute movie consisting mainly of silence and (deliberately) banal dialogue left critics and some audiences bemused and/or irritated. The New York Times called it “Boring”.
In 1969, the film won a single Oscar, for Best Visual Effects, although it was nominated for three more (Best Director, Original Screenplay, and Best Art Direction).
Kubrick’s meditation on the fate of man suited the times perfectly, and the movie was a hit, grossing over $40 million worldwide. The film was an enormous hit because it was a visual adventure on a scale that had not been seen on the screen before.
But the film is also full of very cerebral ideas and themes. It debates the relationship between man and technology.
The most sympathetic character in the movie is the super-computer HAL 9000 – supposedly flawless, but actually, many fuses short of a full motherboard.
HAL (notably, and apparently accidentally, one letter removed from computer giant IBM) murders the crew of the Jupiter-bound Discovery One, then strands surviving astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) in a pod outside, refusing to open the doors.
Without a helmet, Bowman launches himself through space, breaking in through the emergency airlock, then suiting up and heading to the processor core to switch HAL off.
But a number of questions are raised when HAL has a nervous breakdown – Man might have created the technology, but can he control it?
2001 is divided into three movements: The Dawn of Man, Mission to Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite.
All three parts are linked by the appearance at some stage of a mysterious rectangular monolith which seems to symbolise the next stage of knowledge towards which man is always aspiring.
The music in 2001 is especially evocative, particularly the two pieces, Thus Spake Zarathustra (by Richard Strauss) and the Blue Danube Waltz (by Johann Strauss).
The technology of the film was foremost in Kubrick’s mind, and his attention to detail would be so exacting it would become maddening to his collaborators.
Kubrick convened a ‘brains trust’ of aeronautical and space scientists to inform his depiction of the future of space travel. Many large US corporations projected their planning more than thirty years in order to predict what everyday objects would look like at the end of the century, and glimpses of the uniform of a Pan Am stewardess on a moonliner, or Howard Johnson’s Earthlight Room in the space Hilton – as well as several hundred words of complicated instructions on how to use a space toilet – provided considerable humour.
The success of 2001 anticipated two important trends of the 1970s – The director as superstar, and the explosion of interest in films of fantasy and science fiction.
The legacy of 2001: A Space Odyssey has been long-lasting. Debates about the meaning of the film have proliferated over the past five decades, especially concerning the final scenes after Bowman has travelled through the ‘stargate’ and finds himself in an opulent hotel room, grows old, and is then ‘reborn’ as the ‘Starchild’.
Dr Heywood R Floyd
HAL 9000 (voice)